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Humphrey's Executor v. United States

Separation Of Powers Requires That The President's Removal Power Be Limited

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Sutherland noted that the Federal Trade Commission was a creation of Congress, and that although the commissioners were appointed by the president, they performed duties which were both legislative and judicial. Therefore, Sutherland concluded, the commissioners must be beyond the control of the executive branch, otherwise, the doctrine of the separation of powers, which divides government into three coequal but separate branches, would be violated. Roosevelt had, in the Court's view, clearly violated this separation in discharging Humphrey without good cause:

We think it plain under the Constitution that illimitable power of removal is not possessed by the President in respect of officers of . . . quasi legislative or quasi judicial agencies . . . For it is quite evident that one who holds his office only during the pleasure of another cannot be depended upon to maintain an attitude of independence against the latter's will.

Roosevelt believed that in removing Humphrey from office, he was acting according to legal precedent set by the Court itself. In Myers v. United States (1926), the Court had ruled that it was within the president's power to remove a postmaster--an executive branch appointee--from office for almost any reason. Now, however, the Court distinguished a postmaster from a trade commissioner, saying that Myers had concerned a political appointee whose responsibilities were solely executive in nature.

Roosevelt was irate. To his way of thinking, the majority of justices then sitting on the Court were splitting hairs in an effort to thwart him and his New Deal agenda of economic reforms, with which he intended to lift the country out of the Great Depression. Not long after Humphrey's Executor was handed down, Roosevelt developed a plan to "pack" the Court with additional justices whom he would appoint. Although Congress defeated this plan to increase the size of the Court in 1937, by then Roosevelt had exerted enough pressure on the Court to compel some of its more conservative members to resign. Over the next few years, he was able to appoint a total of eight justices. After mid-1937, the Court upheld every major piece of New Deal legislation it was asked to consider. Roosevelt paid a price for his victory, however, losing the faith of many Democratic supporters who believed that Roosevelt himself had violated the separation of powers doctrine by playing politics with the Supreme Court.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Humphrey's Executor v. United States - Significance, Separation Of Powers Requires That The President's Removal Power Be Limited, Further Readings